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Buzzword: Pre-K

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Every Fall, we count on two things: it's back-to-school and election time. As students settle back into their routines, voters across the country prepare to head to the polls. Although people in certain states (hint: Virginia) are exhausted by the barrage of campaign ads that interrupt "Modern Family," elections are important -- they draw attention to critical issues. This year, there's a common theme popping up across the country that's of vital importance: the value of expanding Pre-K.

Here's a snapshot of what candidates are saying.

New York City:
With the primaries behind them, mayoral candidates Bill de Blasio and Joe Lhota are going head to head in a series of debates. Their plans differ, but both tout the importance of early learning and call for universal Pre-K. Whoever wins will be in charge of the country's largest school system.

Virginia:
Both gubernatorial candidates are backing Pre-K reform. Terry McAuliffe's education platform devotes an entire pillar to increasing support for Pre-K and early childhood education, and Ken Cuccinelli favors increasing families' access to Pre-K.

Boston:
Candidates Marty Walsh and John Connolly vigorously support Pre-K. Walsh identifies access to high-quality early learning as an equity issue, saying that high-quality early education is "essential" to helping children start kindergarten "on a level playing field." Connolly also throws his support behind this issue, saying that when it comes to early education, "the question is not, 'can we afford it?' but rather, 'can we afford not to do it?'"

Colorado:
Coloradans will vote on Amendment 66--a school financing ballot initiative that will provide $77.5 million for preschool programs. Governor Hickenlooper -- who had proposed increasing funding for Pre-K in his budget, recognizing it as a critical component of education reform efforts -- enthusiastically endorses the initiative: "I'd argue it allows us to go out and say it's the most comprehensive education-reform initiative in the history of the United States. And if it passes, it will make us a national model for public education."

Memphis:
Residents will vote on a referendum that includes a half-cent city sales tax increase. Revenue from the tax will go into a Pre-K Trust Fund that will be used to expand Pre-K in the city of Memphis. If the referendum is passed, Mayor A C Wharton, Jr. will appoint eight people to serve on the Pre-K Trust Fund board. Wharton has been rallying support for the referendum: "We talk so much about poverty. This is the best way to get out of poverty. We talk so much about crime. This is better than police and jails and courtrooms. If we get the children early and get their little brains early and formed up before they get to school, we're going to see a big difference in this city. This can really change this city."

Maryland:
Candidates running for governor of Maryland are already plugging the importance of Pre-K -- a full year before their election in November, 2014. Candidate Heather Mizeur promises that, "closing the gaps will be a major priority of [her] administration, and the only way to truly level the playing field is to start with early childhood education." Candidates Douglas Gansler and Anthony Brown also support expanding access to Pre-K for Marylanders.

There's a lot at stake. With fewer than three in 10 four-year-olds currently enrolled in high-quality preschool -- public or private -- far too many children are failing to get the solid start they need to put them on a successful path in school and in the future. Too many children are left behind before they even begin kindergarten. Studies have persuasively shown that without an early start, students are at greater risk of performing poorly in school in the years ahead, dropping out, making choices that jeopardize their health and future, and failing to become productive adults. Those negative outcomes cost the country money.

It's encouraging to see states, cities, and candidates in disparate parts of the country make a compelling case for increasing investments in early education. It's time for Congress to end the automatic sequester cuts and set in motion the President's bold new plan that will expand access to high-quality child care and early education through partnerships with states. This blueprint will reinforce the efforts of state and local leaders and offer incentives for many more to do the same. And the plan is a win-win for our country and America's children who will be better equipped to compete in a competitive global economy.